Though not a record-breaker for most public comments, last Wednesday’s Department of City Planning hearing on a proposed redevelopment of the St. John’s Terminal at 550 Washington St. certainly came close. According to the DCP’s Twitter account, the hearing was adjourned around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday — roughly six hours after it started — and at least 86 speakers had been heard.
The issue under discussion, however, was more complicated than a debate about a new building. In order to build their megadevelopment, Westbrook Partners and Atlas Capital are asking to buy the air rights above nearby Pier 40 in the Hudson River for $100 million.
In exchange for the air rights, the Hudson River Park Trust, which runs Pier 40, will be able to renovate the pier’s crumbling pilings. The possible transfer has raised concerns among preservationists and residents because they worry it will set a precedent that will lead to more development of the Hudson’s shoreline.
“Allowing the transfer of air rights from the Hudson River Park to this or any other site is fundamentally flawed policy, and ignores other, better options for funding the park we and dozens of other community groups have proposed,” Andrew Berman, president of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said. “And the proposed development and rezoning would increase development pressure upon the nearby historic, un-landmarked portion of the South Village, while the creation of the Special Hudson River Park District has the potential to unleash a million and a half square feet of air rights upon west side communities.”
Then, of course, there is the matter of the development itself. At 1.7 million square feet, it would consume the same two city blocks currently taken up by the hulking, unused St. John’s Center, which was once a railroad terminal. But the existing St. John’s Center is relatively squat by comparison. With four tapering residential towers, the new development would stand out considerably. Designed by COOKFOX architects, the lower floors would be rented out to various retailers and the superblock now traversable only through a dark tunnel would be broken up to allow more light. A pedestrian walkway would connect the two groups of towers above a reopened section of West Houston Street.
As with most proposals that undergo the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, aesthetics are not the only concern. Neighbors both near and far of the St. John’s Center spoke about how the massive project would change the neighborhood. Traffic flow, pedestrian safety, school overcrowding, “big box” stores, parking and affordable housing were all repeatedly brought up in residents’ testimony.
“I believe government should find creative ways to fund the operation and maintenance of its own property assets,” wrote Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in a letter to the DCP, which she reinforced in person at the meeting last week. “All too often though, it appears that the default financing mechanism is to cede that responsibility to a private developer.”
Styra Eisinger, a GVSHP member and South Village resident since 1962, felt compelled to attend the meeting and speak in opposition to the project because, she said, “this is not your normal development.”
“As someone put it very well, the proposal is ‘uptown,’ and this is downtown,” she said. “These are incredibly ugly buildings. … They have nothing to do with life down here.”
Eisinger’s main problems with the development concern traffic, the nature of the retailers that will move in and the kind of tenants attracted to the apartments that will be for sale. “This was highlighted by the request for  parking spaces,” she said. “The developer said the people who are going to be buying these condos, that’s what they’ll want. Well, too damn bad. This is not what the neighborhood needs.”
Eisinger clarified that she was not opposed to the development because it would attract wealthy buyers, but because those people might be less considerate and protective of the neighborhood’s “character and historical place in the city.”
The DCP is expected to vote on the proposal by Oct. 6, at which point it will be reviewed and voted on by the City Council. The developers have said they hope to have approval in time to begin construction in 2017.
Madeleine Thompson can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org